World Hockey Association
Forty years ago, the greatest opponent in the National Hockey League's history first drew breath, as pucks dropped in the first games of the World Hockey Association.
Caught in the latest NHL lockout, many an embittered fan feels resentment towards Bettman, Daly, and their cronies for throttling the hockey to which they have become accustomed. Of course there are a bevy of junior teams in Canada and the United States, as well as professionals playing around the world, but it's all no match in prestige or quality for major league hockey. The best players in the world pummeling each other week in, week out, before your very eyes; there can never be any replacement.
If the NHL, mired in a labyrinthine labour battle that's raged for a decade and a half with no sign of slowing down, can't provide that hockey then surely someone else can step into the void. But it's impossible. There aren't enough arenas, aren't enough men with money to burn on pro sports, aren't enough underexploited cities crying out for hockey and capable of sustaining a league that must go for several seasons to make any difference.
It's a battle that's been fought before.
Four decades earlier the NHL's position was different: a cartel using its power to maintain the status quo rather than to claw back money they'd already given the players. They expanded slowly (when they expanded at all), left dozens of cities by the wayside, guarded their privileges jealously, and tied their players down to a lifetime of minor league hockey and a withering lack of career options with nasty contracts and the famous reserve clause. It was awful for the fans and the players but no moron would dare try to start a competing league. It could never work. It was impossible.
It did. On this day, 40 years ago, the World Hockey Association played its first regular season games.
Nobody really thought the league would drop a puck until the clock started running. Yes, promising Maple Leafs goalie Bernie Parent had joined the league in February, and the Winnipeg Jets had signed NHL superstar Bobby Hull to an unprecedented million dollar signing bonus in June; that caught eyeballs, but hardly calmed nerves. They had also caught attention with a flashy inaugural draft that included "priority selections" who were either plugs or big names the teams had no chance at. The Oilers went oh-for-four on their picks their first season and would eventually manage to sign Norm Ullman and Bruce MacGregor, though sadly Bobby Clarke never wore the orange and blue.
The WHA was mental. It was also run by that nemesis of the call-in radio set: the American lawyer. Anyone who criticizes Gary Bettman for not being a "hockey man" would have flipped their lid. Three of the league's founders, Dennis Murphy, Gary Davidson, and Don Regan, went to a Los Angeles Kings game with "Wild" Bill Hunter in early 1972. According to Hunter decades later, when the linesman went to drop the puck for the opening faceoff Davidson turned to Hunter, looking confused, and asked "what are they doing?"
The World Hockey Association was a purist's nightmare. Blue pucks were a memorable if short-term innovation; depending on who you asked they were either used in the preseason only or sparingly in the first regular season. They bought major league hockey to wild new markets and forgotten old ones, stacked with players the Harold Ballards of the world assured us didn't belong there. But the WHA was still wild, going for press rather than sensibility nine times out of ten. They grabbed career minor-leaguers, NHLers bound by the old reserve clause, Russians (!), anybody they thought might have a snowball's chance in hell of upping their talent level. While NHL teams were owned by old families or the occasional nouveau riche who had scrapped his way to a place in the hockey patriarchy, Hunter and Murphy chased decidedly non-traditional owners with a pitch of "would you rather be known as a guy who owns a hockey team in Detroit, or a guy who manufactures brassieres in Muskegon?" It never should have worked but somehow it did.
Many of those Muskegon brassiere manufacturers didn't have money, or didn't have the money they thought they had, or ran into problems with arenas or lawsuits or general economic hell, or just got bored. It was not a stable league from before day one. Only eight of the twelve teams announced in November 1971 survived through the end of the 1972-73 season. More folded as the years went on. It was chaos.
That World Hockey Association which surely could never get off the ground produced a first-year Oilers team filled with likable and familiar faces in a manner unthinkable today. Remember the angst that surrounded whether Steve Tambellini would deign to bring back the beloved Ryan Smyth for a negligible draft pick, then look at the team's 1972-73 roster.
The Oilers' first star, Jim Harrison, hailed from Bonnyville. Val Fonteyne, an NHL veteran and faceoff maestro who was one of the greatest penalty killing centres (and least penalized players) ever to live, came from Wetaskiwin. St. Albert native Eddie Joyal played two years with the old Edmonton Flyers, not to mention most of ten NHL seasons to make him one of the team's elder statesmen. Blueliner "Steady" Bob Falkenberg, a fringe player but a damned useful one in the Steve Staios mold, was born in Stettler. Defenseman Steve Carlyle was from Lacombe and not only played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Movers and the Rustlers but actually spent a year at the University of Alberta. Center Ron Walters, a journeyman who had a career year in 1972-73, was from Castor. Defenseman Bob Wall was an Ontario boy but did a short turn with the Flyers in 1962. Brian Carlin was from Calgary, tough guy Doug Barrie from Edmonton, Ron Anderson from Red Deer, Dennis Kassian from Red Deer. Walters, Anderson, Falkenberg, Kassian, and Cranbook forward Bob McAneeley were all alumni of Bill Hunter's old Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Oilers won, of course; they were a good team, Albertans and all. Lovable and talented in equal measure, in a way that Steve Tambellini has been unable to capture even half of. A couple years ago I called the 1972-73 Alberta Oilers the best Oilers team to miss the playoffs; the Nationals made the playoffs with a record five games below .500 in the ghastly Eastern Division, were vivisected by New England in the first round, and promptly folded to spare us further misery.
You could see the Oilers' history unfolding on that first day like you storyboarded it. Bill Hicke, a 34-year-old forward with 729 NHL games behind him, was expected to be one of the team's stars. Sure enough he scored two goals, one from a penalty shot, and was singled out for praise in all the newspaper articles. Jim Harrison, who quietly scored a goal, had two first assists, and did it all at even strength, should probably have been first star but was hardly mentioned at all. The final score was 7-4 to the Oilers despite the shots running 32-31 Ottawa; Ken Brown, who played decently but not well, would be out of the Alberta starting job within months while thoroughly ventilated Ottawa 'tender Les Binkley would somehow stick around through 1976 without a single good season.
The game was marked by one of those entertaining little misdemeanours of which the WHA, in its early days, was so fond. In the third period with the Nationals killing a penalty, Binkley had the stick knocked from his hands, sent careening into the corner boards. Thinking quickly, defenseman Chris Meloff, an undersized but scrappy player even for his era, gave his own stick to Binkley and rushed into the corner to retrieve the goaltender's. But around him the remaining three Nationals were still trying to kill the penalty, and the puck skidded towards Meloff. Thinking much less quickly this time, Meloff tried to thwack a pass with Binkley's stick, whereupon the most aptly-named referee in history, Ron Ego, assessed Meloff a penalty for using illegal equipment. Joyal scored his first of 57 career Oilers goals on the resulting two-man advantage.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Crusaders blanked the Quebec Nordiques 2-0 on goals from former Edmonton Flyer Bob Dillabough and Ron Buchanan. Gerry Cheevers, the former Boston Bruins star, made 21 saves for the shutout as the hometown fans sold out Cleveland Arena and roared their new team on to a tremendous victory. The Philadelphia Blazers lost 4-3 to the hometown New England Whalers in a rollicking game, hometown hero, former US Olympian, and eventual three-time WHA All-Star Larry Pleau scoring the winner late; the ceremonial faceoff taking place over the famous "B" logo of the Boston Bruins the Whalers were hoping to kill. The Chicago Cougars lost 3-2 in Houston to the Aeros.
The World Hockey Association's wild edge was not only on or off the ice but, sometimes, through it. When the Blazers tried to play the New England Whalers in their home opener at the Philadelphia Civic Center the next day, the Zamboni broke the surface while trying to scrape it pre-game and got stuck. Injured star signing Derek Sanderson went out to explain that the game had to be canceled, whereupon a modest crowd whipped their souvenir orange pucks at Sanderson and company as they fled in dismay.
Stories like the Philadelphia one and countless others created for the WHA a reputation, which lingers today, as a cowboy league that was fun while it lasted but never could have managed more. People call the WHA a failure because it only played seven seasons. I call it a success because, in those seven seasons, it did the only thing that matters: it made hockey better for the fans. No other definition of success in professional sports should be meaningful to you and me, and that's why a new WHA could still be professional hockey's greatest triumph. Forty years ago today, the hockey world saw the greatest revolution since Howie Morenz was still the Mitchell Meteor and everyone was the better for it. Forty years later, and we still dream of another Gary Davidson sitting in the stands with stars in his eyes, asking what the linesman is for.
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 — Greig, Murray. Big Bucks & Blue Pucks (Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1997), 8.
 — Willes, Ed. The Rebel League (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004), 127.
 — Greig, 9.
 — The Associated Press. "Grand Debut for WHA." The Evening Independent, October 12, 1972. Accessed September 14, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ClhQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vVcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3468,3451984.
 — The Canadian Press. "World Hockey: Oilers Win Big in League Debut." Calgary Herald, October 12, 1972. Accessed September 14, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8GxkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=GX0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1133,808180.
 — World Hockey Association. "World Hockey Association Game Summary: Alberta Oilers 7 at Ottawa Nationals 4." World Hockey Association Hall of Fame. Accessed September 14, 2012. http://www.whahof.com/gamesummary.php?id=916.
 — The Associated Press. "WHA Opens Season." Tucson Daily Citizen, October 12, 1972.
 — "Box Scores." Check out the WHA. Accessed October 10, 2012. http://puckysrevenge.com/Wha/boxscores/boxscores.htm.
 — Willes, 53-54.